Champions of Champlain make polluters come clean

Peripatetic New Yorkers flock to the shores of beautiful Lake George. And New England's vacationers, with long-established loyalties, seek the salt flavors of their own seaboard communities.

But sometimes neglected are the sparkling, expansive waters of Lake Champlain. Scene of the pre-Revolutionary War boundary disputes of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, for ages this long border lake has been striking for its pristine beauty and purity.

Two hundred years after that band of patriots roamed, another group of vigilants -- the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC) -- is out to keep the lake that way.

Here along the shores of this inland sea -- it reaches over 120 miles from Quebec deep into Vermont and New York -- a company of environmental patriots has staged a stunning series of environmental dramas over the past 19 years. Founded in 1963 when the lake was about to be dredged as a major inland seaway, the committee's defense victories have gone largely unobserved. But they have included fighting off the omnipresent threat of pollution as well as projects that could permanently alter the lake's face.

The final curtain on this two-decade environmental stage-show hasn't been rung down yet. But in a recent annual report to its approximately 1,300 members, Committee Executive Secretary Anne Baker described what the lake might look like today if it had not been for the prodigious labors of committee workers:

Huge oceangoing vessels might be spewing waste from their bilges; barges could be spilling thousands of irretrievable gallons of No. 2 heating fuel into the lake (with no contingency cleanup plans); major cities might be pouring untreated sewage into the water; and a nuclear power plant could be pumping thermal waste water into the lake.

Ms. Baker's reminder that the committee had been instrumental in meeting these terrible threats was not so much a pat on the back to members as a spur to persist into the '80s.

Last summer off the cow banks just above Sand Bar Bridge near the lake's South Hero Island, fishermen enjoyed the best run of landlocked salmon since a fish restoration project began several years ago. The lake trout near Keeler's Bay and Savage Island were abundant last season, too.

And above clumps of wild geranium and purple loosestrife, rare songbirds freely soar from red oaks to pin cherries.

The fact that Lake Champlain is largely free of industrial and chemical pollutants is no accident, said Montgomery Fischer, present committee cochairman. In 1963, the International Joint Commission (IJC), a six-member board of advisers on transboundary water issues from the United States and Canada (three from each country), was about to endorse plans to make Lake Champlain a major inland seaway.

Concerned about damage to the lake environment, groups of citizens from the Vermont and New York sides of the lake banded together to do an independent environmental cost-benefit analysis of the proposal.

The testimony of this unified group was powerful. With a motto, ''Progress Without Pollution,'' the newly formed, nonprofit Lake Champlain Committee was able to demonstrate that the explicit, quantifiable costs of the seaway far outweighed the possible benefits of the project.

This vocal ''no'' to the quick and ultimately costly commercialization of the lake, together with the citizens' vow to remain unified as a committee to protect the lake, marked a turning point in the history of environmentalism. The fact that the group had raised its funds entirely from private membership gave it a unique impartiality. Its evenhanded pro-progress approach enabled it to testify without extremism at public meetings and before the IJC.

This first victory was just the beginning.

Three years later, when confronted with the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation's tentative plans to build a 1 million-kilowatt nuclear power plant on the eastern shores of the lake, the LCC acted with characteristic moderation. Its statement, the result of two years of study, was not patently antinuclear: ''The Committee is not opposed to atomic power. We do believe that the headlong rush into atomic power has left many problems unresolved and that the current regulatory structure dominated by the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) is inadequate to protect the environment from a technology which remains in its infancy. . . .''

As a result of committee efforts, a new section was added to Vermont Public Service Board statutes requiring it to investigate the environmental implications of all power plant construction before granting permits.

''Sludge'' was the subject of numerous banner headlines in Lake Champlain area newspapers from 1970 through 1977. Here again the Lake Champlain Committee was instrumental in forcing a paper company to clean up its operations on the southern portions of the lake. Since before the turn of the century, the International Paper Company (IPC) had been dumping effluent into a creek that flowed into the lake at Fort Ticonderoga.

By the late 1960s, huge chunks of smelly sludge had begun to break loose from a 300-acre mass oozing on the lake bottom at the mouth of Ticonderoga Creek. Through the efforts of the LCC and the Vermont legislature, the company was finally induced to move five miles north into a new state-of-the-art factory with waste-water treatment facilities.

The ever-vigilant committee, however, was not content to leave the matter there. Despite assurances from the company that the new $75 million pulp mill would be virtually pollution-free, the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission was able to film effluent flowing into the lake from the new Five Mile Point plant. The committee was especially alarmed to find that lake fish in the area contained dangerous amounts of mercury, and it filed suit with the State of Vermont against IPC and the State of New York.

So hotly disputed was this case -- which at one point reached the United States Supreme Court -- that it took three years for the involved parties to come up with an acceptable out-of-court settlement. The IPC was not required to remove the lake-bottom sludge - which has gradually stopped sending its ugly chunks to the surface. But the US Environmental Protection Agency decreed that the mill had to reduce by two-thirds the suspended solids it was releasing into the lake. The IPC was also compelled to pay the State of Vermont $500,000 to be used for lake environmental protection efforts.

During the last few weeks of April every year, in the wet meadow areas of grasses and sedges along the lake's shore, northern pike, spawning in shallow water, broadcast hundreds of thousands of tiny eggs. As the eggs hatch, the fry become mobile before annual high waters recede. Perhaps the most dramatic and controversial environmental battle ever fought on the lake concerned these valuable wet meadow nurseries of the northern pike and many other lake fish.

In May 1975 the Canadian government announced it would soon begin construction on a multimillion-dollar dam on the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain's outflow to the St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic. Unusually high lake water levels had for a decade been flooding prime farmland along the Richelieu in Quebec. Ninety-six percent of the lake, however, is in American territory. A compromise was reached and the Canadian government agreed not use the dam until a two-year environmental study of the lake had been completed.

This compromise, won by several members of the International Joint Commission and the Lake Champlain Committee, would ultimately not satisfy either side. By March 1976, the IJC had voted to recommend to the Canadian government that both damming and dredging be blocked for at least the two-year study period.

During the months following, the Lake Champlain Committee mobilized to find a method of flood control that would not destroy the lake's delicate ecological balance.

The results were impressive. Enlisting more than 30 volunteer technical experts and advisers, the committee was able to demonstrate the adverse affect the dam would have on the lake environment (involving the loss of 11,000 acres of wetlands). It also proposed a number of far less costly, nonstructural means of reducing the danger of flood damage.

One tenacious hero was Dr. Skip Barnett, at that time professor of earth sciences at the State University of New York, Plattsburg. He was able to demonstrate that the earlier widening of the Chambly Canal on the river had in fact altered the ''stage-discharge'' conditions on the river, increasing the danger of flooding.

These man-induced effects, he explained, could be eliminated to provide up to 1.0 feet of total flood relief, close to the 1.2 feet desired by the International Champlain Richelieu Board. And it could be done at a considerably lower cost than the controversial dam.

In January 1981, the IJC finally decided ''not to decide'' on the Richelieu Dam issue. The victory in its noncommittal statement, however, came with the ''Flood forecasting and warning system'' it recommended at the same time. Many of the features of this nonstructural alternative to the dam were drawn up by the Lake Champlain Committee during its six-year effort to stop the dam.

As the sun sets on an era of US government-inspired and supported environmentalism, the privately funded Lake Champlain Committee finds itself well suited to meet the very different challenges of the austere 1980s.

Proof of the committee's ability to work in both the Vermont and New York legislatures for enlightened protective laws is impressive. In 1977 the committee staged the largest grass-roots effort ever seen in Vermont to reverse a negative decision on a phosphate detergent ban bill. It also worked successfully in both states for legislation requiring boats on Lake Champlain to use waste-water holding tanks rather than macerator-chlorinators.

The LCC has only one full-time staff person, and its annual budget of about $ 25,000, is raised entirely by the efforts and contributions of its dedicated members.

Despite the Lake Champlain Committee's private, nonprofit, independent status , the Reagan administration's New Federalism has already had some impact on the group. Last year the New England River Basin Commisssion closed its Burlington, Vt., office. Funds for the commission had been set aside by the Senate Public Works and Environmental Committee. But Interior Secretary James Watt was able to use his power as chairman of the Water Resources Council to deauthorize the New England Commission along with six other water use commissions in other parts of the country, regardless of the funds budgeted.

Instead of despairing over the loss of this long-term ally in the lake water resources conservation work, the Lake Champlain Committee has stated publicly it will do all in its power to continue the efforts begun by the River Basin team.

Fortunately, the commission leaves behind a massive environmental study entitled ''Shaping the Future of Lake Champlain,'' which identifies environmental trouble spots and proposes solutions to the water- and land-use problems that will face the area in coming decades.

The latest chapter in the story of the Lake Champlain Committee is its efforts to alert the public to the need to harvest wildly overgrown water chestnut plants. This weed, which prevents virtually all boating and fishing in infested areas, is not the crunchy delectable found in Chinese dishes, but a nuisance weed that has crept into Lake Champlain on the propellers of boats coming up from the Hudson River.

Similarly, the committee has undertaken to calm local fears and promote scientific discussion about Champ, its famed serpentlike lake monster. Last August, to offset the frenzied activities of T-shirt manufacturers and bounty hunters, the committee invited researchers from the Universities of Arizona, Chicago, and Vermont and the Smithsonian Institution, in cryptozoology and related zoological and environmental fields, to address the public on Champ. If the prehistoric serpent should turn out actually to exist -- and people claim to have sighted the beast on the lake very frequently -- the committee would like to prevent its harpooning by excited tourists and keep impassioned monster hunters from harming each other or the lake environment.

As word gets out, perhaps the LCC's moderate approach of favoring progress, but drawing the line where ''prosperity depends on depleting natural resources, '' will help other environmental groups heading off into the wilderness in the ' 80s.

And what proof is there of the value of committee efforts? Tall blue herons still fish fearlessly near moored boats in quiet island coves on the lake. And cries of the eerie loon across the water in the summer months proclaim the lake's continued hospitality to all native creatures.

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